The Boston Phoenix
May 27 - June 3, 1999


Tech tack

Is the Los Alamos of the East Coast turning into just another college?

by Michelle Chihara

The garden outside 69 Chestnut Street, on a quiet corner in Cambridgeport, is undergoing an ambitious replanting. Pockets of tulips, bright red and yellow, and patches of lawn hold on defiantly between trenches of overturned soil. It looks like a standard three-family house, but when a voice from inside calls "Dinner!" the gardeners who wipe their hands and head inside are all college-age. The garden and the house belong to an "independent living group" called Pika, and the students are undergraduates at MIT.

The name Pika comes from the Greek letters of the fraternity that used to own 69 Chestnut, Pi Kappa Alpha. Since 1976, when the house went co-ed and broke from the fraternity, it has operated as a cooperative living group. It's drug- and alcohol-free, and everyone has kitchen duty once a week. At another college, Pika would probably be considered unique, or at least experimental. But at MIT, it's a cornerstone of the housing system: one of the 36 officially recognized fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups (the collective acronym is "FSILGs") that house more than a third of the undergraduate student body.

Like its garden, Pika is facing a time of change. Since the 1997 death of 18-year-old freshman Scott Krueger from alcohol poisoning at a fraternity event, MIT has come under intense scrutiny. In response, the school ushered in a host of new alcohol-related rules and regulations. Last September, university president Charles Vest decreed that the housing system would change as well, and that all freshmen would live on campus by the year 2001. At a public meeting last month, an administrative committee introduced a set of recommendations for how that change might take place.

The plan has huge portions of the campus up in arms. MIT's InterFraternity Council, which includes independent living groups along with the college's fraternities and sororities, is adamantly opposed to most of the proposed policy changes. A group called ILTFP (I Love This F*&king Place) formed last year in response to a number of recent administrative decisions, including Vest's housing decree. ILTFP sees the housing change as evidence that the administration is caving in to public pressure, overstepping its bounds, and acting in loco parentis.

Vest's decision was, at least in part, a political move to appease critics. Worried parents charge that MIT's traditionally hands-off approach to its student body might have contributed to the death of Scott Krueger; Krueger's family recently announced that it plans to file a civil suit against the school. But MIT's solution is also part of a larger current, both in higher education and at the school itself. Nationwide, colleges are facing similar pressures to take increasing responsibility for student life and welfare. And as MIT's administrators look ahead, they seem to see the school shifting to an undergraduate experience that's more collegiate and less . . . MIT. Students aren't necessarily happy at the prospect; the MIT they know and love hands them the key to the nuclear lab and then gets out of their hair. But in a world where technology is increasingly tied to business, the administration is clearly worried that it's graduating students who are simply too lopsided to succeed.

On a warm spring Monday, MIT's main dome, the stately, columned building that faces the river on Memorial Drive, has been transfigured. Using painted canvas and what one student guesses is "some PVC pipe covered with Mylar," students have turned the building into a towering R2-D2.

Such pranks are a point of pride at MIT, along with the high number of patent owners and Nobel laureates among alumni. Although the school's academic reputation places it in the company of Stanford, Yale, and its neighbor Harvard, you don't have to walk around campus for long before you realize how different it is. Compared to the average clubby Ivy, MIT feels like a perpetual science fair. Its buildings are referred to by an internal system of numbers (not by name); most are linked by an unbroken hallway called the "infinite corridor." In one of two East Campus dorms, the floors are numbered 0, √2, 3, 41, and 5i. (The last is an imaginary number.)

MIT students even protest differently. When ILTFP decided to demonstrate against new policies, they organized a "tool-in," in which students filled the hall outside the president's office, sat on the floor, and did homework.

Although the school's tongue-in-cheek recruiting video tries to dismiss it, "Nerd Pride" is alive and well here. It's a hard-won pride. Although accusations of grade inflation have become standard at other elite universities, MIT still offers its first year pass/fail to allow students time to adjust to the first bad grades most of them have ever received. MIT students bond over the number of all-nighters they've pulled and the excruciatingly hard tests that they've bombed. They usually chose MIT at least in part because of the strict meritocracy that they feel it represents.

"It's more than just getting away from high school, where you're stigmatized for being smart," says Lex Nemzer, a junior in management and the vice-president of the Undergraduate Association (one of MIT's five student-government bodies). "At other colleges I visited, people were still complaining about classes; classes were still something that were kind of annoying. But at MIT, people weren't just accepting of being smart. People were really happy doing what they were doing; they were really engaged."

With Matt McGann, the president of the Undergraduate Association, Nemzer sometimes lapses into whole sentences of nothing but acronyms. They relish explaining MIT's inside jokes. Jennifer Frank, the president of the dormitory council, explains that MIT has its own slang. "Tooling" is studying or working; "punting" is avoiding study and work. A prank, like last week's R2-D2, is called a hack. All three students say they could have attended other elite universities, the kind where Nemzer says students still complain about classes. "It's not that we don't complain here," says Frank, "but we're not really complaining. We kind of like complaining about the things we all complain about, like how little sleep we've gotten. There's a kind of camaraderie."

"MIT is an elite institution, but it doesn't feel as . . . elite," says McGann, as he readjusts his olive-colored fedora. "It's more blue-collar. More people here went to public school."

You hear this at all levels of MIT, from the president's office and the admissions office as well as from the students. MIT has traditionally boasted a high percentage of first-generation college students, kids from lower-middle- and middle-class families who see science and engineering as a way of getting a leg up. Seventy-nine percent of MIT's undergraduates come from public high schools, which is high for universities in its academic league. At Harvard, it's 65 percent and at Yale, 53 percent, according to the Princeton Review Complete Book of Colleges: 1999.

Nerd Pride can be a touchy issue at MIT, but students certainly enjoy their unabashed quirkiness -- as well as their passion for their work. Chancellor Laurence Bacow has even given a nod to the Nerd Pride ethic, calling it a "good example of eccentricity embraced" in a speech in 1997. In a society that often reserves a peculiar cruelty for those who value intellectual pursuits over athletics or good looks, MIT represents a truly alternative value system.

Certainly, no conventional college has the kind of housing system that has evolved at MIT. The school didn't even house students on campus until after World War II, and its piecemeal shift over the past 50 years from commuter school to centralized campus has resulted in a very idiosyncratic residential life.

New MIT students arriving on campus are hit with a high-pressure "rush" weekend, during which they choose the dorm or the FSILG they'll live in for the next four years. The dorms are on campus, administered by the school. The FSILGs, most of which are in Boston (some as far as a mile from campus), are affiliated with the school but run as nonprofit corporations owned by alumni. They number 36 fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups such as Pika.

Students seem to feel that the MIT academic experience -- the "ass-kicking" first year especially -- makes their living situations necessary. "I'm from Kansas, from a really close family in Kansas, and the move away from them to Boston and MIT was a really tough transition," says Jessica, a lively Pika freshman with short black hair. She takes unabashed credit for one night's communal feast at Pika: vegan eggplant, vegetarian eggplant, chicken with eggplant, pasta, salad, garlic bread, and "Kansas cake" -- a soft peanut-butter-and-chocolate-chip affair. "I couldn't have done it without Pika. I mean, I have other friends in the dorms who have had a rough time with the transition, and when they're depressed they come to Pika. And we bake."

Ben Polito, a senior at Pika, is similarly passionate about his house. "Because MIT is such a stressful place, because we're working so hard to pass and to make it, we don't have a lot of time and energy to spend on learning how to live with people we're not compatible with," he says.

Polito took a year off after his first year at MIT to be a carpenter. He ended up coming back, largely, he says, because of Pika. Coincidentally, Pika tends to be one of the houses that "builds more stuff," Polito says. He himself is responsible for somewhere between three and five of Pika's porches, depending on how you count the levels of what amounts to a grown-up slatted jungle gym attached to the back of the house, complete with ladders and a fire pole. Evidence of Pika's workbenches -- from impossibly lofted beds to elegant homemade radiators -- occupies every corner of the house.

"The big picture at MIT is kind of a huge, monolithic block of concrete," Polito says. "Its salvation is in these little pockets of humanity."

Polito's sentiments are echoed by students from the dorms. "MIT doesn't make much of an apology for being different," says Ed Golaski, a member of ILTFP who lives in one of the long, steel-reinforced concrete buildings that make up East Campus. "You can sign yourself up for a lot of pain. The first year is very, very hard. And that's exactly what I needed as a frosh. It knocked my ego down." To Golaski, the proposed policies would disrupt the current character of the dorms as well as the FSILGs.

To be fair, the proposed plan (which still has to be approved by the chancellor in September) doesn't exactly tear up the floorboards of the system. In the end, the decree will probably mean, simply, that first-year students will all live in dorms, and they'll choose based on brochures sent in the mail instead of participating in a rush process. This is still slightly more leeway than most private colleges give their students, but off-campus groups are understandably upset: the plan removes a quarter of their members, threatening their financial livelihood in neighborhoods that are already expensive. They fear that, given MIT's academic rigor, students simply won't be motivated to make the move off campus after their first year.

There are other manifestations of the administration's increased attention to student life, including perks like tripling the student-activities budget. But a cushy and involved approach might not improve students' morale. They don't want nicer dorms. They want dorms where they can build the lofts -- and the porches and the radiators and the plumbing -- themselves. To a large proportion of MIT students, a school that tells them how to live is just another college.

MIT, chartered just before the Civil War and built shortly after its end, was never intended to be like other universities. MIT's founder wanted a school that would focus on the "pragmatic and the practical" instead of on the classics and the humanities. Its establishment as a world-class research institution hinged in large part on huge injections of military funding during and just after World War II. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Department of Defense funding has dropped dramatically, and the university came to a crossroads in the '90s.

In 1995, President Vest launched a "re-engineering" process aimed at trimming $25 million out of MIT's operating budget. In a speech that year, he called this "a time of expanding opportunity and eroding support."

To replace government funding, MIT is increasingly dependent on donations and on private-sector money. Of MIT's sponsored research, about 68 percent is now federally funded, down from about 75 percent just three years ago. Industry-funded research is picking up the slack. Twenty percent of sponsored research is now funded by the private sector, according to figures from MIT; the MIT newspaper, the Tech, reports that in 1996 the provost appointed a council on industrial relations to help face an anticipated 20 percent drop in federal non-defense research funds by 2002.

At any business, a substantial change in revenue streams forces a substantial reassessment of priorities. The new administrative focus on student life is simply part of a simultaneous spiritual, or cultural, re-engineering.

"I've been here since 1995," says Jeremy Sher, a 22-year-old math major who is the chair of the student committee on educational policy. "I've watched the Institute reassessing itself in a really profound way. Before the end of the Cold War, it was always laid out organizationally, like a government research lab. I mean, we were a school, sure, but we were very different from most universities and very similar to . . . Los Alamos."

Research has always been MIT's strongest suit, so it's not surprising that it involves its undergraduates in unparalleled numbers. Through a program called UROP (the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program), more than 80 percent of MIT's undergraduates participate in the kind of research generally done by grad students at other schools. They work with faculty on everything from solar cars to cures for AIDS; 20 percent of them publish papers in academic and professional journals -- the type of activity that helps PhDs earn tenure.

In 1998, BankBoston and MIT released a study with a new statistic for the Institute to flaunt: its students had started 4000 companies by 1994, generating 1.1 million jobs and $232 billion in sales. Administrators now talk about cultivating "entrepreneurialism" in the student body. With the business world increasingly where the action is, MIT is starting to worry that success in the lab is simply not enough.

In its 1998 report, the task force on student life and learning put it bluntly: "The belief that MIT's reputation will always derive mainly from its research enterprise is the largest inhibitor to change in its educational processes."

That's a surprising statement at an institution that prides itself on research that has paved the way for everything from synthetic penicillin to digital computers. But it's also a pragmatic position. "MIT has succeeded in producing the highest quality researchers and engineers," wrote the task force, "yet many of its students lack the necessary skills to be good managers and leaders. This technical focus has created a damaging stereotype of students, and has led many to career trajectories that don't reflect their true potential."

An old, bitter joke says that MIT engineers go to work for Harvard MBAs. MIT's administrators -- worried about students who might just be too serious, too wrapped up in their projects, and too idiosyncratic -- are in perhaps a unique position: clashing with their undergraduates by trying to de-emphasize academics.

But underneath that lies another concern, one that goes beyond the welfare of individual students: MIT's endowment is substantial, but it is still smaller than the endowments of many private universities in its class. At the outset of the school's ambitious, ongoing restructuring process, President Vest said that this needs to change. In an interview with the MIT paper, he said, "There has not been the same level of tradition and expectation of giving back that's become inculcated in people from the Ivy League universities."

Administrators will say only that they want to increase student attachment to the Institute as a whole. But one way to inculcate that school sentiment is to house freshmen together so they bond as a class. Although administrators say that MIT receives ample alumni funds, class-year fundraising has also always been part of the Ivy League "tradition and expectation of giving back."

Golaski, on East Campus, already feels the imposition. "The idea that they have to mold the freshmen into a cohesive class whose main identification is to their year, that makes me really nervous," he says. "They're reviving MIT battles of the olden days, battles of the classes. I never had any sense of class identity foisted on me before this year."

William Hecht, the chair of MIT's steering committee on residence design, bristles at the slightest implication that MIT might be losing its individuality, or getting more like "the old red brick institution up the street," as he puts it. Hecht, a round man who wears suspenders and a bow tie, is in the awkward position of trying to talk the MIT community through the housing changes. He sounds tired. "If it were a busted system, well, we know how to deal with that," he says. "But improving a system that's perceived as very good is hard. That doesn't mean it's an unreasonable thing to do." He calls Scott Krueger's death a catalyst.

"We haven't seriously looked at student life and learning in about 50 years," he says. "It probably should be looked at periodically."

One way or another, by the time freshmen of the class of 2005 arrive on campus, MIT will be different. Hecht doesn't think any of the changes threaten MIT's soul. But he does say that the new focus on aspects of education outside the classroom is a growing necessity in an age when technology has become not just the domain of engineers and scientists, but also of businesspeople. "Leadership in science and technology today requires people who think quite broadly about the role of science in society," he says. "We need a group of people who not only design and think about and invent technology, but who think about it in the context of making society a better place by using it."

For a community of problem-solvers, the current controversy might have been inevitable. The riddle presented by MIT's identity crisis is not an easy one -- how do you balance top-down and bottom-up community, a sense of discovery and independence with a sense of security and support? The time of wrenching change may, as administrators say, simply be forgotten. It may make MIT more like other, less research-driven colleges.

Or, the concerns over these changes may be remembered in the same way that Norma McGavern-Norland, the director of UROP, remembers the growing pains that MIT experienced in the '70s, with the first significant influx of women. "People thought women were going to make things change, soften things up," she says. "I think women have changed this place. They just put it on more of an even keel." Now, equal numbers of women and men do undergraduate research. "I don't think it's going to change all of a sudden because it gets more human," she says. "It'll be more human in terms of the scientists, I hope, rather than being more like Harvard."

If the new policies do end up feeling like too much of an imposition on MIT's unique culture, there's always the chance that they might not stick. MIT's libertarian spirit has a way of erupting at the seams, expressing itself in "hacks" and other unruly gestures. Near the end of last month's meeting announcing the proposed housing plan, a woman in the audience asked Hecht about one of the suggestions, a rule that -- she thought -- was asking to be broken.

Hecht sighed and said: "At MIT, if you make a rule, no matter what you do, people are going to find a way to completely and totally violate the spirit of the law without actually breaking it."

Everyone in the audience snapped their fingers. Which seems to be the MIT way of clapping.

Michelle Chihara can be reached at mchihara[a]

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